Teams Jacques Villeneuve
235Jacques Villeneuve: Promised FulfilledBy Jeremy McMullen
On a rather overcast day in early May 1982, many Formula One, and Canadian, racing fans would be left with promises unfulfilled. Their hero, the great wheel-to-wheel racer Gilles Villeneuve, was dead. There would be no World Championship for the man everyone believed was the heir-apparent. But his line wouldn't end with him. He would have a son and that son would not only chart his own course, he would fulfill the promise that had been left torn and broken against that catch-fencing in Zolder, Belgium.
Jacques would be just eleven years old when his father ended up against the catch-fencing having been flung from his Ferrari across the track as it disintegrated in mid-air as it turned over and over again. With his father's death that day in Belgium, the hopes of many Gilles fans and Canadian racing fans would be left unfulfilled. In many respects, Ferrari's hopes would also be dashed as it would be 21 years before a Ferrari driver would win the Formula One World Championship. However, in spite of his father's terrible death, Jacques would never deviate from what had been the family's occupation. In fact, the tragedy would only seem to accelerate the young man's growth.
Motor racing was a part of Jacques' life right from the very beginning. Though born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec, Jacques would be mostly raised in that Mediterranean jewel known as Monaco. Though Jacques' father Gilles would be Canada's hero, the family would be filled with racing drivers. His uncle, also known as Jacques, would become the first Canadian to win a CART race when he won at Road America in 1985. Interestingly, Gilles would become the darling of Formula One, then there would be his uncle Jacques who earned success in CART, Jacques would prove the strength of family genes by finding success in both.
Initially, a motor racing career would be as a result of a bribe. Though he desired to follow in his father's footsteps it was contingent upon his mother's approval, and that would only come as long as he improved his grades. Proving himself with his grades, his mother Joann would set up a drive in a 100cc kart at a track right in the heart of Ferrari country—Imola.
Imola in 1982 had been the site of one of the greatest frustrations in his father's career. Passed on the last lap by Didier Pironi, the 2nd place at Imola in 1982, many would suggest, would set the stage for the tragic accident that would follow at Zolder that would take his life. But, for his son, Imola would prove a turning point. He would impress in his kart drive and would end up being offered a chance to drive a 135cc kart as soon as he came back in. But the day wasn't over. The son of the great Gilles, Jacques would prove he had the family genes, and, before the day was done would be behind the wheel of a Formula Four car on the actual grand prix circuit.
Returning to Canada, his uncle would enter him in the Jim Russell Racing Driver School in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Instructor Gilbert Pednault would declare Jacques then best student he'd ever seen. Villeneuve would then work in a garage to further train himself in car set-up. It was clear he was talented enough to contend with some of the best in the world, but, at 17 years of age, he was too young to get a racing license in either Canada or Italy. However, with a little help, he would get a license from the tiny nation-state of Andorra.
Able to go racing, Jacques would end up in the Italian Formula Three series from 1989 through 1991. This would be a great testing ground for the young Villeneuve but it would prove to be a most unsuccessful bid. He would earn better results racing in the Japanese Formula Three series in 1992. Over the course of that season he would win three races and would end up 2nd in the championship.
Craig Pollock would become an important figure in Jacques career over time. However, in late 1992 Pollock would be relatively unfamiliar with Jacques but would invite the driver to a Formula Atlantic race at Trois Rivieres. Villeneuve would impress in the race finishing in 3rd place. This would impress Pollock to such a degree that he would give Jacques a drive in the North American Toyota Atlantic series for 1993.
In spite of some driving errors, Jacques would finish the 1993 Toyota Atlantic series with seven pole positions and five race victories out of 15 races. Unfortunately, those mistakes would cost him and he would finish 3rd in the championship. Nonetheless, it was good enough to earn the Canadian the opportunity to take another step up.
Driving for the Forsythe-Green Team in the IndyCar Championship, Jacques would prove the Villeneuve genes were strong and unbreakable as he would take his first victory in CART IndyCar at the very same track, Road America, his uncle had won at back in 1985. Nearly ten years later, it was another Canadian coming through to victory at the Road America circuit. He would also go on to finish his first Indianapolis 500 in 2nd place. This would not only earn him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award, but it would also earn him the 1994 PPG IndyCar World Series Rookie of the Year award.
Jacques' star was on the rise and would only rise all the more the following year. Still in the CART/IndyCar series, he would take victory in the first round of the championship. Then, at the 79th Indianapolis 500, Villeneuve would overcome a two lap penalty to come away with a surprising victory. Not since the 1981 Monaco Grand Prix, had the Villeneuve family celebrated such a monumental victory. The victory would not only lead to the CART/IndyCar championship that year, it would also bring Formula One beckoning at his door.
The victory at Indianapolis, especially after coming back from a two lap penalty, would cause many within Formula One to pay attention to the son of the man who Enzo Ferrari compared to the great Tazio Nuvolari. One of those to especially pay attention to the young Canadian would be none other than the Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone. Not since Michael Andretti in 1993 had Formula One had a driver from North America. The series badly needed an ‘American' driver and Villeneuve fit the bill, at least to some degree. Frank Williams, the owner of the strongest Formula One team and the one bearing his name, would agree. Villeneuve, at the age of just 24, would land a ride with the best team in Formula One.
Landing such a ride, the expectations would be high. The fact his last name was Villeneuve only made things worse. However, Jacques would weather the storm perfectly by taking pole-position in his very first race. He would prove the pole was no fluke as he would nearly win that Australian Grand Prix had it not been for an oil leak late in the race that caused him to have to hand the victory over to his teammate, another son of a Formula One great, Damon Hill.
The pairing of second generation drivers would prove nearly unbeatable over the course of the 1996 season. The two sons of Formula One would run in a class unto themselves over the course of the season. Aided, undoubtedly, by the best car in the series, Villeneuve and Hill would take 12 victories out of 16 races. Hill would score eight of those victories. However, because of Villeneuve's four victories, and more consistent driving, the championship would go down to the final race of the season—the Japanese Grand Prix.
The pressure was firmly on Jacques as the points advantage still swung in Hill's favor. However, the Canadian would prove equal to the task claiming pole-position for the race and going on to set the fastest lap. Unfortunately, Hill would be in control of the event and would be untouchable once Villeneuve ran into trouble late in the race. The title would go to Hill, but Jacques would finish his first season in Formula One as the runner-up. Gilles had finished 1979 runner-up to Jody Scheckter. However, Hill would be departing Williams at the end of the season, Jacques was in a position to fulfill what his father never managed to achieve.
Even before the start of the 1997 Formula One season Jacques had already reached a level his father could have only dreamt of. Both had marquee wins with Gilles winning at Monaco in '81 and Jacques coming through to win Indy fourteen years later. Gilles' short career would end with six World Championship victories. Jacques would already have four to his credit along with a CART/IndyCar championship. The son was carrying on, and in many respects surpassing, the family legacy. There was just one more level of achievement that had to be attained for there to be total fulfillment.
Though in just his second season in Formula One, Jacques would take over as Williams' number one driver with the departure of reigning World Champion Damon Hill. Villeneuve would be joined by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, a German driver many were tipping to be as good as Michael Schumacher. This was going to a great test for Villeneuve and he needed to exert himself straight-away.
Jacques would do that in qualifying posting a pole-winning time that was nearly two seconds ahead of that set by his teammate. Unfortunately, it would be his slower teammate that would get the jump at the start to lead the way. Villeneuve would then get squeezed by Eddie Irvine in the Ferrari and Jacques would end up out of the race after making contact with Johnny Herbert in his Sauber. This was not how his season was supposed to start.
Villeneuve would make up for the poor start to the season with three victories in the next five races. He would then go on to add another four over the course of the rest of the season. However, some car troubles and erratic driving would allow Michael Schumacher to stay in the hunt for the World Championship. As it did the year before, the World Championship would go down the final race of the season.
Heading into the final race of the season, Villeneuve would find himself trailing again, this time by just a single point. Still, the Canadian needed to do everything right against the German if he had any hopes of finally taking the World Championship for the Villeneuve family, the championship many believed was his from the very beginning of the season.
The fight in the last race of the season could not have gotten any tighter when both of the Williams drivers, and Michael Schumacher, set the exact same lap time in qualifying. However, because Jacques had set his time first he would be awarded pole-position. Schumacher though, would start right there on the front row of the grid with him. It was surely going to be a championship to remember.
Memories of Gilles' racing days always include those epic scenes battling wheel-to-wheel, and often more, with Rene Arnoux. Heading into the final moments of the European Grand Prix at Jerez, Gilles would be resurrected as it would be his son hunting down Schumacher in search of his first title.
Schumacher would hold onto the lead for around two-thirds of the race. Villeneuve and Frentzen would barely get a sniff of the lead throughout. Schumacher looked to be in control and on his way to his third title. However, Jacques would prove his stock and he began to reel in his championship contender. Then, with about 24 laps remaining in the race, Jacques would be cutting into Michael's lead by an impressive rate each and every intermediate split. Shades of Gilles, Jacques would be impressive as he pulled closer and closer to the Ferrari. In many respects, Jacques was reeling in the legend of his father and was on the way to creating his own.
Then, with 22 laps remaining, Villeneuve would dive down underneath Schumacher. Like Vileneuve and Arnoux, Villeneuve and Schumacher would be wheel-to-wheel. Michael would turn down on the Williams making contact. The Ferrari would be pushed out into the gravel and Jacques would be on his way to the championship title all believed the Villeneuve family deserved.
Despite giving ground to the two McLarens in the final lap to finish in 3rd, Villeneuve would achieve what he set out to. He was World Champion. He had not only succeeded his father in impressive fashion, he had forged a legend of his own. In addition to his Indianapolis 500 victory he was now the Formula One World Champion. He had not only forged his own path, he had forged a career filled with jewels making him motor racing royalty.
After his championship in 1997, the Williams team would suffer from some disappointing developments. Renault would leave Formula One. This would leave the team to run Mecachrome engines. Though basically rebadged Renault engines, the development of the engine would be lacking and the cars would lack the performance. As a result, Villeneuve's title defense would be weak with the Canadian finishing the season 5th in the championship standings at the end of the year.
Craig Pollock, Villeneuve's manager, and the man that got him the drive in the Toyota Atlantic series, would found the British American Racing (BAR) team in 1999. Villeneuve would leave Williams for BAR. Unfortunately, the new team would suffer from terrible reliability and mechanical failures.
In 2000, the BAR team would be supplied with Honda engines. The team's performance would improve but would still be beset with unreliability. Villeneuve would make the best of the situation and would come away with seven points-paying finishes over the course of the season. The best result would come at the inaugural United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis where Villeneuve would return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time since his victory in 1995. In that race he would be involved in an enthralling battle with his former Williams teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen for the final spot on the podium. Sadly, Villeneuve would just miss out on 3rd finishing about a half second behind the Jordan.
Villeneuve would remain with BAR, even after Pollock's sacking before the 2002 season. Sadly, Villeneuve's performances in the BAR, compared to his very rich salary, made him a target. Villeneuve intended to remain with BAR throughout 2004 and 2005. However, the former World Champion would be outpaced by Jenson Button. Criticized by the media and nearly everyone else, Jacques would be replaced within the team before the Japanese Grand Prix at the end of the 2003 season.
Jacques would be without a drive in 2004 but would come back late in the season to replace Jarno Trulli at the Renault Team. Unfortunately, the time away would prove disastrous as he would struggle to come to grips with the much faster Renault. He would fail to score a point over the three remaining races of the season and would move on to Sauber for the 2005 season.
Villeneuve would struggle with Sauber. He would prove to be off the pace of the front-runners and his teammate Felipe Massa was just as fast. At the end of the season, Massa would leave for Ferrari. BMW would buy out the team from Sauber and had suggested other drivers could take over Villeneuve's seat. However, BMW decided to keep Villeneuve to allow him to fulfill his contract. However, after being replaced by Robert Kubica in the Hungarian Grand Prix as a result of an injury sustained in the German Grand Prix, Villeneuve's ride with the team would be terminated immediately. It was widely believed the two men would have been involved in a shoot-out for the seat. Villeneuve felt his resume had already earned him the seat, but it was clear the team thought otherwise. So the former World Champion would be out of a ride.
Being without a ride in Formula One, Villeneuve would look to achieve the only remaining jewel in motor racing's triple crown. He had the Indianapolis 500 and was a World Champion. All that remained was an overall victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Therefore, Villeneuve would sign with Peugeot Sport for the 2007 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Not surprisingly, Villeneuve would be the fastest of the Peugeot drivers putting his number 7 908 HDi FAP on the grid in 4th place. This initial endeavor would be a hard-fought one going up against the mighty Audi R10 diesels. Throughout the early part of the race Villeneuve and his co-drivers would sit in 2nd place. Unfortunately, engine problems would cause the car to be retired some time after midnight.
One year later, Villeneuve would be back. His number 7 Peugeot would be one of the favorites coming into the race. In dry conditions the 908 was the fastest car on the circuit. This would help Villeneuve and his teammate climb to the lead. They would hold onto that spot into the late hours of the night. But then, in a cruel twist, it would begin to rain. The advantage would swing back in favor of the Audi R10s. In the end, Villeneuve would finish in 2nd place.
In spite of losing out on a great opportunity to win the third jewel, Jacques would declare that he wouldn't give up until he won the race. In the meantime, the Canadian looked to other ways in which he could fulfill his urge for racing.
This meant a move to NASCAR. Despite competing in the Craftsman Truck Series, the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. In spite of showing signs of speed, Jacques would struggle to come away with the kind of results most would expect. A couple of his highlights in NASCAR would come in 2011 when he took over for Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series. After earning a 3rd place result at Road America he would go on to start to start the very next race on pole. That race would be at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
In addition to his experiences in NASCAR, Villeneuve would take part in the V8 Supercar series racing for Rod Nash Racing. Then, heading into the 2014 season, it would be announced Jacques would take part in the FIA World Rallycross Championship. On top of racing in the World Rallycross Championship, Villeneuve would also announce that he would take part in the 2014 running of the Indianapolis 500. This would be the first time since his victory in 1995 the Canadian would have the opportunity to repeat as champion at the Brickyard.
Jacques' latter-part of his racing career has not shown the promise and the talent for which he had become praised for during the mid-1990s. There have been brief moments of glory, but they have been brief. Though it would appear certain the Canadian's talents have waned from what they had been, there is absolutely no doubting his achievements during that earlier period. Furthermore, the son of that famous Villeneuve succeeded in making a name for himself. In fact, in many respects, the father and son seem separate from each other. However, any way one looks at it, the Villeneuve name has taken its rightful place in Formula One and racing lore. Gilles added the excitement and the passion. Jacques took the passion and excitement and ran with it all the way to a championship and the rarified position of having two jewels in motor racing's crown to his credit. And for that, all of the unfilled promise surrounding the Villeneuve name has been realized.Sources:
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